More and more directors are placing their documentaries in film sub-genres. If James Marsh’s Man On Wire was a heist movie and Tiller Russell’s Precinct Seven-Five was a gangster flick then Marc Silver’s 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is a courtroom drama.
In 2012 Michael Dunn and his girlfriend Rhonda Rouer were returning to their hotel from his son’s wedding in Jacksonville, Florida. They stopped off at a gas station just an SUV pulled up blaring hip hop. In the SUV was black teenager Jordan Davis and his three friends. Rouer went inside to get some wine and just as she was at the till she heard shots ring out. Jordan Davis had been shot.
It transpired that Dunn asked the three teens to turn down the music. Initially compliant, the teens then turned it back up. There were heated exchanges and Dunn, upon hearing a violent threat and thinking he saw Davis reach for a shotgun as he moved to step out of the SUV, scrambled for his gun in the glove compartment and fired ten shots into the retreating SUV. Rouer got back in the car and a dazed Dunn drove them to their hotel. During the night Jordan Davis died from his wounds. Dunn turned himself in.
Silver’s exploration of what is justifiable use of force and what is the difference between actual threat and perceived threat makes this an interesting documentary. Muddying the waters further is the stand-your-ground law with its ‘no duty to retreat’. Of course if there was no gun to reach for in the first place no one would have been killed, right? But that’s a different documentary.
Dunn believed his life was in danger and that he saw Davis hold a ‘pipe’ he thought was a shotgun. He’s also adamant that he’s not a racist and sees himself as a victim who used self-defence: “I’m the rape girl blamed for wearing skimpy clothes.” But what damns him is Rouer’s honest testimony: when the SUV pulled up pumping out the loud tunes, she said that Dunn remarked, “I hate that thug music.” Silver at this point gives over time to show that thug is the new n-word and while Dunn’s defence attorney works hard to stop the case turning into a hate crime, Davis’ mother wasn’t having it: “If we don’t get a guilty verdict, as a minority it’s another slap in the face,” says Davis’ mother.
While Silver beautifully sets things up and cobbles scenes together not only from the courtroom, interviews with Davis’ friends and from radio phone-ins, he does overcook the scenes with the parents somewhat with Oprah-esque sad glances and sadder music. Not to diminish the parents’ heartache and acknowledging that these scenes are the film’s beating heart, they are guilty of stalling momentum: just as the courtroom scenes heat up and the questions become a little more awkward, Silver annoyingly cuts away to yet another tearful scene.